Texas courts generally look to federal courts’ interpretation of federal anti-discrimination laws to assist in interpreting the anti-discrimination provisions of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). However, the provisions of the TCHRA do not always exactly mirror the language of parallel federal anti-discrimination laws. The Texas Supreme Court recently examined such differences in interpreting the scope of the anti-retaliation provisions of the TCHRA.
In Texas Department of Transportation v. Lara, the Texas Supreme Court examined whether a request for a reasonable accommodation constituted opposition to a discriminatory practice so as to invoke the protections of the anti-retaliation provisions of the TCHRA. Albert Lara, Jr. was a long-term employee of the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT). In the spring of 2015, Lara underwent intestinal surgery. Following his release from the hospital, TXDOT approved Lara’s request for unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Lara requested leave extensions on two additional occasions. TXDOT granted the first extension through July 20, 2015. On July 15, Lara requested a second extension to October 21, 2015. TXDOT granted leave through September 16, which would exhaust the maximum available leave to him. TXDOT later notified Lara that “he would be ‘administratively separated’ from the agency effective September 16 so that the agency could hire a full-time employee to perform his job duties.”
Lara sued his former employer under the TCHRA, asserting, among other claims, that TXDOT retaliated against him for requesting an accommodation for his disability (i.e., extended unpaid leave). The trial court granted TXDOT’s motion for summary judgment on this claim. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the retaliation claim because “Lara had not, before he was terminated, engaged in a protected activity by opposing a discriminatory practice, making a complaint, or participating in an investigation.” The court of appeals also found that a request for accommodation does not qualify as “opposition to a discriminatory practice” as a matter of law.
In reviewing Lara’s retaliation claim, the Texas Supreme Court noted the difference between the TCHRA’s definition of retaliation and that contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Both the TCHRA and ADA contain nearly identical language prohibiting retaliation against employees because they have opposed an act or practice made unlawful under the relevant law or because they filed a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing. However, the ADA’s anti-retaliation provision specifically prohibits employers from coercing, intimidating, threatening, or interfering with employees in the exercise or enjoyment of their rights under the ADA. The TCHRA does not contain such a provision.
The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Lara’s argument that the appellate court’s finding that a request for accommodation is not “opposition to a discriminatory practice” was overly broad. However, the court noted that a mere request for an accommodation does not constitute protected conduct under the TCHRA unless an accommodation request alerts the employer to the belief that disability discrimination was an issue. The court based this conclusion on its recent decision in Alamo Heights Independent School District v. Clark, where the justices held that an employee must alert the employer to an allegation of discrimination in order to invoke the TCHRA’s anti-retaliation protection. In this matter, the court determined that none of Lara’s communications requesting a reasonable accommodation alerted TXDOT to his belief that discrimination on the basis of his disability was at issue; therefore, his request for an accommodation did not constitute opposing a discriminatory practice under the TCHRA
The Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Lara is good news for employers. The court declined to expand the scope of the anti-retaliation provisions of the TCHRA beyond the letter of the law. While the court refused to extend the anti-retaliation protections of the TCHRA to a mere request for accommodation, employers should remember that a refusal to grant a reasonable accommodation could itself still constitute actionable discrimination under the TCHRA and employers still have the responsibility to engage in the interactive process when employees request reasonable accommodations.